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Grammy’s sentimental journey

Sometimes music industry’s highest honor arrives a little after the fact
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This year, Grammy’s top nominations include several vaunted artists from Back in the Day. Ameriquest mortgage company spokesperson Sir Paul McCartney received nominations for Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album for the adequately selling “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” Baby boomers may fondly remember McCartney’s stint in the Beatles with whom he shared six Grammys. Or his follow-up group Wings, for which he received one.

Meanwhile, Oprah’s close personal friend Stevie Wonder received six nominations for the long-awaited critical snooze, “A Time to Love.” Boss Bruce Springsteen even has a Song of the Year nod for “Devils & Dust.”

These nominations of formerly-influential artists may seem out of character for an award known for making its selections from the best-sellers bin. But Grammy has a sentimental — if not regretful — side, too. Take Listology.com blogger lbangs’ review of the 2004 Grammys: “Worst trend: Sentimental awards. Did you die last year? Have a stroke? Why, here’s an award.”

Still, lbangs’ prophetic Grammy pronouncement, issued one year before the recently-deceased Ray Charles’ sweeping 2005 win, is only partially correct. Grammy is also happy to award healthy artists perhaps overlooked in the past — even if they seem better suited for a Lifetime Achievement Award. (No doubt the hale and hearty McCartney will take home at least one trophy on Feb. 8.) Further, you can hardly call it a trend when it happens all the time.

Your sentimental journey begins here
The footprints of Grammy’s misty-eyed missteps can be traced to 1959, the debut year of the newly-minted award. Crooner Frank Sinatra was riding the crest of his second career peak. With both “Only the Lonely” and “Come Fly With Me,” nominated for Album of the Year, Ol’ Blue Eyes seemed a shoo-in to win. He didn’t.

Instead, the Grammy went to soundtrack-meister Henry Mancini for “The Music from Peter Gunn.” Given Grammy’s record of rewarding the irrelevant, it’s doubtful the academy had the foresight to see how “Peter Gunn’s” infectious bass line would influence everyone from Chuck Berry to Weezer.

Meanwhile Sinatra, legend has it, was not amused. And like all cowering toadies in countless Sinatra legends, Grammy spent the next five decades making it up to him, awarding him 10 Grammys in all, even when he didn’t necessarily deserve it.

Regrets? Grammy’s had a few…
Skipping Sinatra when it mattered most set an after-the-fact precedent Grammy can’t break. Even a radical change in 1995, when nominations were turned over from the academy membership to a special committee to ensure credible nominees, failed to change Grammy’s sentimental ways. Case in point: Ray Charles’ previously mentioned 10 Grammys for  “Genius Loves Company.”

It’s widely agreed that “Genius Loves Company” wasn’t Charles’ best LP, let alone the best LP nominated. The more-deserving Album of the Year contenders included Alicia Keys, Usher, Green Day, and the shoulda won Kanye West (for “The College Dropout”). But Charles passed away earlier that year. And despite a multi-decade career of influence and innovation, Grammy forgot to give Charles his due.

Though the oversight did not take place over decades, Nirvana didn’t get its Grammy until Kurt Cobain died. Awarded in 1996 for “MTV Unplugged in New York,” it was kind of like winning for a “Greatest Hits” LP. Warren Zevon was first nominated, and won two Grammys, in 2004 for “The Wind.” His final LP was recorded while Zevon was in the final days of his battle with lung cancer and released three weeks before his death. Sinatra contemporary Rosemary Clooney, who both longed for and deserved a Grammy, finally received a compensatory Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, months before her death.

The Grammy of Regret came closest to actually being offensive in 1982, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won Album of the Year, less than three months after Lennon’s murder. Like McCartney, Lennon shared six Grammys during his Beatles years. Unlike McCartney, he spent the 1970s ignored by Grammy for his far superior solo work. But while many viewed the prize as an empty gesture, Lennon’s widow Ono accepted the award with gratitude.

To the chagrin of more deserving nominees, there are many living artists who received their Grammy late. Creaky Bob Dylan once inflamed folk music fans with his switch to electric. He finally received respect in 1998 when he got Album of the Year. Carlos Santana’s wise commercial choice to record with youth-oriented artists such as Lauryn Hill and Dave Matthews won him the same award in 2000. And Steely Dan, who, in 1980, sang about the inability to dance with a teenager in “Hey Nineteen,” got that Grammy in 2001.

Recognizing great artists who changed the musical landscape is a good thing. Really, it is. The Ray Charles sweep, along with the movie, “Ray,” no doubt turned a lot of new fans towards his earlier deserving works. But it makes no sense that Charles, Zevon or Clooney had to wait. C’mon Grammy. Give credit when credit is due.

Helen Popkin lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.